Roland S770 (Part 3)
In the final instalment of this three-part review, Simon Trask takes a look at the most important aspect of Roland's super sampler - the sampling itself.
We end this three-part review by looking at the heart of the S770 - its sampling facilities - and at how it presents itself to the user.
PART ONE OF this review provided an overview of the S770, while in part two we focussed on the sampler's Performance, Patch and Partial levels - which leaves this concluding part to consider the final level of the hierarchy: the Sample level. If the S770 was a restaurant, its menu would offer up to 64 meals, each meal would consist of up to 32 courses, each course would consist of up to 88 dishes, each dish would consist of up to four ingredients chosen from a possible total of 512 - and all the ingredients would be assembled and prepared at the Sample level. So without further ado, let's head off to the kitchen...
FIRST OF ALL, an update: Roland are now making the RAS770 memory board for the S770 available free, but in the process they've removed the 2Mb of memory which came with the board when it was going to retail for £899. Now, as you may recall from part one of this review, the S770 can accept standard SIMM chips, which come considerably cheaper than Roland's own OMS770 memory upgrades. For this reason the company have decided not to stock the OMS770 upgrades, but instead recommend a source of SIMM chips in the UK. Currently this source is MacWarehouse, who are selling SIMMs at a very reasonable £59 per Megabyte; consequently, upgrading the S770 to its full 16Mb sample memory capacity will cost you £826 - considerably less than it would have cost if you'd had to buy the OMS770 upgrades.
The Sampling level on the S770 is accessible via the Edit Sample option on the Sound menu, or via the Loop, Sample and Sampling keywords on the Index page (see below). There are five pages at this level: Sampling, Loop, Truncate, Smooth and Normalise.
You can select either analogue or digital sampling, and in the case of the latter adjust the Digital Attenuator parameter if the input signal is distorting. Also, for digital sampling the sampling frequency must be either the same as or half of the the frequency of the incoming digital signal - so for CD sampling via the optical input on the S770's rear panel you can sample at 44.1 or 22.05kHz.
With analogue sampling the S770 allows you to freely select from four sample rates: 22.05kHz, 24kHz, 44.1kHz and 48kHz. Sampling can be in either mono or stereo, and is of course 16-bit linear (while D/A conversion is 20-bit and internal processing 24-bit linear). Unlike Roland's previous samplers, which split their memory in half for sampling purposes, the S770 allows you to sample freely into its entire memory.
You have to give each sample a name of up to 12 characters before you can go ahead and sample, and no two samples can be given the same name. To name a sample (or any other item of S770 data) you first click on the Name field. This calls up the ASCII Keyboard window, which as its name suggests allows you to click on numbers and letters which are organised in a typewriter keyboard layout, complete with spacebar, backspace and carriage return functions. It's a neat idea which works well in practice.
In addition to selecting mono or stereo sampling, input type and sampling frequency, you can select an Original Key for sample playback (adjustable at any time), a sample time, a pre-trigger time for catching those sharp attack transients, sampling type (auto, manual, previous or one-way), trigger type (level, MIDI Note On message or footpedal) and - where relevant - the trigger input level. Additionally, with Monitor enabled the S770 will pass the incoming analogue signal on to its stereo and headphone outs (in contrast, digital input signals will only be passed to the digital outs).
Auto sampling waits for the specified trigger, while Manual starts whenever you click on Start; however, both incorporate the pre-trigger time. Presumably the S770 continuously samples for the pre-trigger duration, then goes into the main sample when sampling is activated. Previous sampling is an extension of this principle, in that it allows you to capture the sample input for the specified sample duration before you click on Start. Previous sampling can come in handy when you're sampling off tape, vinyl or CD, as long as you're prepared to be generous with the sample time and then Truncate the sample down afterwards. Finally, One-way sampling is like Manual, except that it ignores the pre-trigger time - but then it doesn't introduce any waiting time between sampling and being able to play the sample back.
The S770 provides you with an onscreen level indicator (stereo or mono accordingly) which goes into the red when the input signal hits distortion level. You can adjust the L/R record level and the overall input sensitivity from front-panel knobs. Once sampling has finished, the S770 switches to a graphic display of the sample waveform and offers you six choices: Next, Retry, End, Loop, Truncate and Norm. At this point you can play the sample on the keyboard, or if you don't have a keyboard hooked up, you can trigger it from the front-panel Sound Play button (the playback note and velocity can be set from System PRM Page 1). If the sample hasn't worked out, clicking on Retry deletes it and returns you to the Sample page and the same parameter settings. Next sets you up for the next sample, End takes you to the Sound menu, and the other three options take you to the relevant pages.
The other pages at the Sample level all provide you with the same sample graphic in the lower half of the screen, but the Loop page additionally provides X and Y Zoom parameters which allow you to progressively zero in on selected areas of the sample for editing purposes. However, the S770 has no facility for editing the actual sample data, which can be singularly frustrating if you want to remove a click from a sample taken off vinyl - not to mention the fact that the absence of sample data editing removes a whole area of experimentation.
"As well as providing many samples of familiar percussion instruments, Roland have also included examples of the less familiar, such as pandero, surdo and dumbek."
What the S770 does allow you to do is alter the start and end points of the sample and define both a Loop Start point and Release Loop Start and End points. Additionally you can select interpolated Loop Start and Release Loop Start sample points for finer control of looping, and adjust the tuning of each loop ±50 if it needs bringing into line with the pitch before the loop. There are two ways to adjust the sample start, loop and end points: by incrementing and decrementing the numeric parameter values, or by "dragging" horizontal bars and lines immediately above the sample graphic using the mouse; generally speaking, numeric editing is best for fine adjustments while "dragging" is greatly preferable for making speedy coarse adjustments. The S770 can update the loop points in real time while a sample is playing, so you can instantly hear the results of your edits.
X Zoom offers x1 (no zoom), x4, x16, x64 and Max magnification on the x-axis of the sample graphic, while Y Zoom offers the same amounts on the y-axis. The X Zoom amount affects the resolution of numeric scrolling; at Max, scrolling is at individual sample-point resolution, while the resolution at other amounts depends on the length of the sample and on the sample rate; the clarity of the sample graphic varies for the same reasons.
At greater than x1 magnification the graphic divides into two halves separated by a vertical bar. If you select Point display, the graphic will display the sample either side of the currently-selected position parameter; if you select Loop, it will "dovetail" sample segments before the Loop or Release Loop End point and after the Loop or Release Loop Start point in the graphic. The idea of the Loop display is that you can see graphically how the sample "flows" from the end of the loop back into the beginning, and therefore more readily locate suitable looping points. The graphic can help you to find suitable zero crossing points and waveform matches, which is a good thing because the S770 has no auto-finding routines.
Roland's sampler has five types of looping: Forward, Forward + Release, Forward + One, Alt and Rev; additionally, you can select OneShot or Reverse OneShot for no looping. With Forward selected, the main Loop applies even after you release a note, while Forward + Release kicks in the Release Loop when you release a note and Forward + One plays through the Release Loop data once when you release a note. Alt, as its name suggests, alternates between forward and reverse playing of the main Loop data, while Reverse reads from the Loop End point to the Start point and then repeatedly reads from the Loop Start point to the Start point - so a reverse loop requires different settings to those of a forward loop.
The Loop page includes a particularly neat feature in the form of Loop Lock. With this turned on you can slide the Loop around within the sample by scrolling the End point, which makes it very easy, once you've satisfactorily looped one or more beats of a sampled rhythm, to experiment with looping different parts of the rhythm. Smart.
Another aspect of the S770 which could lead to some interesting experimentation comes into play with stereo samples. Remember that a stereo sample is actually two samples which are phase-locked together and require two voices to play. Now, you can separately loop, truncate, smooth and normalise the two "sides" of a stereo sample, which means, for instance, that you can experiment with forward looping one side and reverse looping the other side - someone's bound to use it on a record soon. You can also experiment with combining different loops from within the same rhythm sample; loops don't have to be the same length, either. You can use the Set Stereo command to combine any pair of mono samples into a stereo pair (and conversely split a stereo sample into two mono samples), the only proviso being that they must be of the same length - which needn't be a problem, with forward planning.
The Truncate page allows you to lop portions off a sample outside From and To points (these default to the Start and Loop End values), with a Fade Length parameter allowing the sample to be faded in and out over a specified range to avoid unseemly popping sounds at the truncated points. You can get the S770 to make a backup of the original sample, which is effectively the only way that you can extract more than one sample from a longer sample ie. by successively truncating different parts of the original.
The Normalise page can come in useful where a sample's recorded level is too low, as it expands the sample data over the full 16-bit range, effectively making it louder. Again, you can make a backup of the original if you wish.
"By allowing you to move the mouse anywhere around the screen the S770 improves on its predecessors, which force you to step sequentially through their parameters."
Finally, the Smooth page is actually our old friend crossfade looping. This can be applied separately to the main Loop and Release Loop, and to each side of a stereo sample, and allows you to adjust the length of the crossfade. The crossfaded sample is saved as a new file with an "N" suffix. In practice crossfading needs to be applied judiciously, and can result in a noticeable fluctuation in amplitude if over-applied, thereby accentuating rather than smoothing the loop - a fact which makes me suspect this isn't the most sophisticated crossfade implementation around. Ensoniq's much cheaper EPS sampler has much more to offer in the crossfading department - and the S770 should have, too. While we're on the subject of shortcomings, there's no ready way on the S770 of pasting samples together to create a new combination sample.
One advantage of having an onboard disk drive is that the S770 is able to come with a a healthy complement of samples as standard. These are divided into Piano & Harp, Strings, Acoustic Guitar, Basses, Voices, Mallets, Drum Kits, TR808 Kit and Percussion categories. Wot, no TR909? Shame on you, Roland.
In fact, out of some 300 samples in total, just over half are drum and percussion samples. Percussion is the biggest single category, both in terms of sample time and number of samples; as well as providing many samples of familiar instruments (eight cowbells, 15 congas and 13 bongos), Roland have also included examples of the less familiar, such as pandero, surdo and dumbek. With the S770 being able to reproduce drum and percussion sounds with such crispness, clarity and punch, it's good to see that Roland have provided such a large collection of sounds to get you started.
At the same time, if it's panoramic pad sounds you're after, the Voices category has its fair share of luxurious, spacious, breathy stereo vocal samples - the kind that sound so heavily produced they'd make even the average bedroom Portastudio production job sound like it was done in a top-flight pro studio (well, maybe not). Among these, 'Spacy Voxs' is the crème de la crème (otherwise known as "creamy"). In fact, listening to the clarity of the vocal samples, it's all the more surprising to discover that they were sampled at 24K.
IT'S HARD TO underestimate the importance of how an instrument presents itself to the user. Just think, FM programming might never have acquired the stigma of intellectual complexity that it did if Yamaha had made all those obscure parameters more readily available - allowing you to manipulate them interactively in real time from front-panel knobs 'n' sliders, for instance.
In the world of computer software, the WIMP environment has revolutionised not only the way in which software presents itself to the user, but also the way in which the user can interact with it - as anyone who uses sequencing software will know. Roland have been providing their samplers with a mouse and (optional) monitor, and utilising a WIMP-type environment, ever since the S50 - and the S770 isn't about to prove the exception to the rule. In fact, by allowing you to move the mouse anywhere around the screen the S770 improves on its predecessors, which force you to step sequentially through their parameters.
For everyday use, a colour monitor in preference to the S770's monochrome monitor option and its LCD makes a lot of sense, not least because then you can take advantage of the colour coding which Roland employ in their displays. If your preferred method of working is with the mouse and a monitor, you can get the mouse to track and the screen to update more quickly if you disable the LCD (by setting a System parameter rather than putting a brick through the screen).
But it's not just the fact of having a mouse and a colour monitor to work with that makes the S770 the user-friendly beast that it is - the ease with which you can navigate its world of software pages is just as important. There are four options available to you: Mode, Index, Jump and Command. Mode takes you via the Mode Change menu to the Perform, Sound and System menus, from which you can select options which each have between 1-5 software pages associated with them - for instance, the Disk Tools option on the System menu has Load, Save, Copy, Delete and Util pages associated with it. You select which page to display by clicking with the mouse on the page names listed on the bottom row of the display, or by pressing the relevant front-panel Function button (the sampler defaults initially to the page you were on when you last left each option). Clicking on Exit or pressing the Exit button takes you back to the menu from which your choice was made, while clicking on Mode takes you back to the Mode Change menu - or you can select any mode directly by pressing the Perform, Sound and System front-panel buttons.
"It's not just a mouse and a colour monitor to work with that makes the S770 so user-friendly - the ease with which you can navigate the software pages is just as important."
An alternative way of negotiating the S770's software pages is offered by the Index window, which is accessed logically enough by clicking on Index or by pressing the Index button. This window provides a list of 32 keywords which are ordered alphabetically within three categories: Sound, MIDI and System. Clicking on these can take you directly to selected S770 pages, windows and parameters - in the case of parameters, sometimes via a sub-menu which lists the various pages on which the parameter occurs. Index is useful when you're learning to find your way around the sampler's world, and when you want to undertake a specific function, but its flexibility is (unnecessarily, to my mind) limited in several ways: the only way out of a page is back to the Index window, you can't Mark a page for the Jump function, and - perhaps most importantly of all - you can't select a page's Command menu (a menu which offers context-sensitive commands such as Copy and Delete).
Thirdly, there is a Jump function, which is becoming an increasingly common feature on Roland instruments. This allows you to select, or Mark, five software pages which you can then Jump to from any other page in the system; pages which are Jumped to aren't subject to the restrictions of the Index path.
To Mark a page you call it up via the Mode path, click on Mark or press the Mark button to call up the Mark menu, then click on one of the existing entries in the menu to replace it with the new page. With this method you can readily alter the list at any time to suit your current working situation. To Jump to a page, you first call up the list of Jump pages by either clicking with the right mouse button on the bottom row of the screen or pressing the Jump button, then click on the relevant name or press the relevant Function button to activate the Jump.
Finally, the Command menus provide a quick way of climbing up and dropping down through the Patch, Partial and Sample levels. Starting at the Patch level, selecting Partial from the Command menu drops you to the Partial level, where you can then select Sample from the Command menu to drop you to the Sample level. Then to retrace your steps back up through the levels you just keep clicking on Exit.
The various paths and shortcuts that I've just described allow you to move around the S770's many software pages and windows with great speed, while comprehension is greatly aided by logical page organisation and clear page layout - the latter above all with a colour monitor. Which isn't to say that there isn't room for improvement. For instance, if you get tired of running through certain sets of operational actions repeatedly (as I did), why not be able to "record" them as sequences which could then be run through automatically by the S770 when you selected them ? You could build up a library of operational sequences on disk, and perhaps swap sequences with other S770 users. A version of such a feature already exists on Roland's R8 drum machine as the User Function.
IF THIS REVIEW WAS AN OPERA it would probably have been written by Wagner. Come to think of it, The S770 Cycle has a certain ring to it. There again, Wagner probably wouldn't have given you the conclusion at the end of the second act. Woe is me.
As it is, while the S770 might cost almost as much as it does to get into Covent Garden these days, it is an extremely professional production, offering plenty of power, scope and versatility and showing every sign of lasting for more than a few acts. In fact, you could say that it'll be some while before it meets its Gӧtterdӓmmerung.
Prices S770, £4860; MOT Magnetic Optical Disk Unit, £5225; CD5 CD-ROM drive, £1340; RC100 Remote Controller, £250; all prices include VAT.
Review by Simon Trask
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!